It is an innate response to reach out to others when we are in distress, and according to Emily Falk, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Communication, Psychology, and Marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and director of its Communication Neuroscience Lab, these social networks influence, and are influenced by, our brain networks.
Looking at the brain’s response to social exclusion under fMRI, particularly in the mentalizing system, which includes separate regions of the brain that help us consider the views of others, Falk Used a virtual ball-tossing game called Cyberball to create the feeling of social exclusion with 80 boys ages 16-17.
While in the fMRI machine, each participant saw a screen with two other cartoon players – who they believed to be controlled by real people – and a hand to represent themselves. All three participants in the game take turns tossing a virtual ball to one another.
For the first phase of the game, the virtual players include the test subject, tossing him the ball frequently. The game then shifts to exclusion mode, and the virtual players stop throwing the ball to the participant.
The data allowed the researchers to look at the activity among different brain regions comprising the mentalizing system. Unlike past neuroimaging studies of exclusion, they were not looking for average activity levels, but rather the relationship among their activity over time. The researchers also were able to access, with permission, the test subjects’ Facebook data, giving them a snapshot of their friendship networks.
In “dense” networks, close-knit friend groupings mean that many of a person’s friends are also friends with each other, while in “sparse’ networks, a person’s friends tend to be more far-flung, not knowing one another.
The test subjects who showed the greatest brain connectivity during social exclusion were those in sparse networks. Specifically, people who show greater changes in connectivity in their mentalizing system during social exclusion compared to inclusion tend to have a less tightly knit social network — that is, their friends tend not to be friends with one another. By contrast, people with more close-knit social networks, in which many people in the network tend to know one another, showed less change in connectivity in their mentalizing regions (Schmälzle et al., 2017).
“The significance of what we found is that people who are surrounded by different types of social networks use their brains differently” (Falk, 2017).
Falk explains, “In particular, we find that those who have a less densely connected social network show more dynamic responses in the mentalizing system. This might indicate that they are thinking differently about how to navigate their social relationships under different circumstances” (Falk, 2017).
One possible explanation for this result, suggests Falk, is that “if not all your friends know each other, you need to more dynamically use your mentalizing system in a day-to-day context. People with a greater diversity of friends may need to scroll through different interpretations of what’s going on” (Falk, 2017).
On the other hand, it also would seem possible that people with different inclinations to think about social situations like exclusion in a particular way, might feel more confident in specific types of networks and thus tend to set up their social networks accordingly (Schmälzle et al., 2017).
While studying social networks has been around a long time, understanding how these social networks influence the brain – particularly during social exclusion – is relatively new. And according to Jean Vettel, Ph.D., of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and visiting fellow at Penn, it is “critical need to understand social influence and context if we truly want to understand how a person will respond and reason about the world” (Vettel, 2017).
What studies like this suggest is that how we respond to being socially excluded is often influenced by our social networks, such that tighter knit social networks result in less thinking about the exclusion, and possibly less distress resulting from it.